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Oct 1, 2019

089 How we use indirect questions


Hey there, welcome again to another useful episode of The Art of Business English. Thanks for joining me.


Have you ever heard of indirect questions? They may be familiar to you or they may be a complete mystery. Let me give you an example, “I was wondering what time it is.” Do you see what I mean? This is an example of an indirect question in action. You will notice that its structure is similar to, but not the same as a direct question.


So, in today’s episode, first, I am going to give you a quick overview of direct vs indirect questions. Secondly, how they are formed. Then we will look at some indirect question phrases and finally, I’ll explain why they are useful in business situations.


Direct Questions


Let’s start by making the comparison between direct questions. Most of us have no problems with direct questions, in fact, we use them every day. Direct questions are formed using auxiliary verbs, such as “do”, “does” and “did”.  Direct questions are also sometimes formed with interrogative pronouns, such as “what”, “when” and “how”.


Some examples of direct questions are:


“Do you live in Barcelona?”


“Did you go to the party last night?”


“What time does the party start?”


“When did Peter visit you last week?”


“How did Peter get to the airport?”


So, as you can see, direct questions are the simple everyday question types we use when we are talking to people in English. Obviously, there are many more questions forms and we can form them in many different verb tenses.



What are indirect questions used for?


Indirect questions on the other hand are used in a less direct way. That is why they are referred to as indirect questions.


We use indirect questions when we want to sound a bit more formal, polite and less direct. They are used to make polite requests of people. For example, people we don’t know, people in positions of authority or when we are asking favours of people and we want to make that request sound nicer.


Remember, when we speak to people in a less direct way it sounds more polite. Therefore, indirect questions are a great way to ask people polite questions.



How do you form indirect questions?


Now that we have seen the direct vs indirect question comparison, let’s take a look at how they are formed.


As I mentioned before they are often used to make polite requests of people. Therefore, they require an introductory phrase to form the sentence.


If you would like to review our previous episode on making polite requests, then you can check it out here. In episode 66 we covered using conditionals and modal verbs.


When we want to sound more polite and less direct in English, we can use conditionals to sound less direct or to form indirect questions we must also use some of the following indirect question phrases:


  • Can/could you tell me…?
  • Would you mind…?
  • Do you know…?
  • Would it be possible…?
  • I was wondering…?
  • Do you have any idea…?
  • Is there any chance you…?


So, firstly we need to introduce the question with one of these phrases and then we must use a different word order or structure to finish the request.


When I say a different structure, I simply mean that in some cases we don’t use auxiliary verbs such as do/does and that verbs such as is/are, change their position in a sentence.  


Let me demonstrate. The first example is a direct question.


“Where is the nearest metro station?”


You can see that it is very direct, maybe in Spanish or another language it would sound OK, but with English this is very direct and to the point.


The indirect and more polite version would be.


“Do you know where the nearest metro station is?”


You will notice that with indirect questions with is/are the order changes and the verb (is/are) comes after the main subject, which in this case is metro station.



Indirect questions with auxiliary verbs do/does/did



Next, it is important to note that indirect questions don’t contain auxiliary verbs do/does/did. Look at this example.


“How many employees do you have?”


The indirect version would be:


“I was wondering how many employees you have.”


Both these questions are “open” questions because they are using an interrogative pronoun and they cannot be answered with yes or no.


You will also notice in the indirect form that we have completely removed the auxiliary verb “do”.


This is the most common mistake that I see with English language learners, they will include the auxiliary and make a direct question even when using an indirect question structure. For example:


“I was wondering how many employees do you have.”


Here, the auxiliary verb should be deleted.



Indirect questions with auxiliary verbs have/has/had



When we are using Perfect tenses, such as the Present Perfect or Past Perfect, the auxiliary verb appears in both the direct and indirect forms.


Let’s take a look. The first example is the direct question with the interrogative pronoun why.


“Why have you bought another motorbike?”


Now the indirect version is:


“Could you tell me why you have bought another motorbike?”


So, we can see that the auxiliary verb is being used in both forms, however, the sentence word order changes. In direct questions have come before the subject and in indirect questions have comes after the subject.



Indirect questions with can and could


As is normal with English, we often make requests using the verb can. It is a simple way to make requests. However, we must note that when we transform direct questions with can to indirect questions, we must change the verb can.


Take a look at this.


“Can you help me with this report?”


Now in the indirect form of the verb we would say.


“I was wondering if you could help me with this report.”


“Do you think you could help me with this report?”


From these two examples you can see that we change can to could. Remember, could is less direct and therefore more formal than can.



Closed question forms for indirect questions



I would like to turn now to look at how we form closed or yes/no indirect questions. Remember closed questions are formed using auxiliary verbs such as do or does and they can only be answered with yes or no.


The indirect question form for yes/no questions is similar to reported speech in English. We must use if to help us form indirect questions. Let me show you.


“Do you want to come to the Christmas party?”

“I was wondering if you want to come to the Christmas party.”


“Will you be attending the trade fair next month?”

“Could you tell me if you will be attending the trade fair next month?”


“Has John been to Barcelona before?”

“Do you know if John has been to Barcelona before?”




Direct and indirect question comparative



Check out the table below for a comparison of direct and indirect questions.


Direct Questions

Indirect Questions

Where is the nearest metro station?

Can you tell me where the nearest metro station is?

Can you come to the Christmas party?

I was wondering if you could come to the Christmas party.

Is John coming to the trade show?

Do you know if John is coming to the trade show?

Where is the toilet?

Could you tell me where the toilet is?

Could you help me with this report?

Is there any chance you could help me with this report?

Can you give a company tour next Monday?

I was hoping you could give a company tour on Monday.

Did you manage to finish the project on time?

I was wondering if you managed to finish the project on time.



Using indirect questions in business situations


Now that you understand how to form indirect questions let’s take a quick look at when they can be applied in business situations.


Firstly, they are great when you are receiving someone at your company, and you want to make polite requests. For example, “I was wondering if you would like something to drink.” This is much more polite than the direct form, “Do you want something to drink?”.


Secondly, they are great when you are away on business traveling. It sounds much better to ask someone on the subway an indirect question than a direct question. For example, “Can you tell me which stop I need to get off at for the natural history museum?”


Thirdly, they are great for asking favours of your colleagues, or suppliers. If you want to get things done, then you should be as polite as possible in your requests and as such you will most likely get what you need. For example, “I was wondering, if it is not too much trouble, if you could urgently send me a replacement.”



Final thoughts


Well, there you have it my friends, an overview of indirect questions and their use in speaking less direct and more polite English.


Remember, they are easily confused, and the most common mistake is to include the auxiliary verb do/does or did when speaking.


Before I go, don’t forget to check out our new AOBE University courses over at the AOBE website, we have a load of new courses for both business and general English.


If you liked this episode, please share it with your friends and family and rate us over at iTunes.


Till next week.